Often when I talk about historical events with friends, I am asked how did I get to know all this stuff. I admit it can give one a smug feeling, but I do tell them the boring truth. I read history books and that is where I get this interesting stuff from.
Books on history are often bland. They can sometimes take a hundred-odd pages to become interesting. With essays on various happenings around India, Manu S. Pillai’s The Courtesan, the Mahatma and the Italian Brahmin: Taales from Indian History is a breezy, fun page-turner.
If you are new to reading about history in India and want to read interesting things cut down to interesting bits, this would be an ideal book to start with.
That said, it is obvious, Pillai has been deeply researching and pouring through history books for a long time. This book is a collection of essays. Their shorter formats were printed as a weekly column in the Mint Lounge and other publications. Writing for print editions has made his usage of language economical, and that comes through these longer essays too. He does retain a sense of humour to his writing too.
Pillai’s essays range from Chokhamela to the Phules, rulers of the Deccan to Lakshadweep, a comical progressive social parody by Shahuji of Tamil Thanjavur to Roberto de Nobili the Italian brahmin in Madurai. The rowdy Robert Clive to Sir Arthur Cotton a military engineer who transformed districts of Andhra Pradesh into rice bowls with irrigation projects – so much so there are about 3000 statues of him. From Dara Sikoh the poet to the tragicomical Wajid Ali of Aaudh.
A Rajaram Mohan Roy, who arrives in England with a cook and a milch cow, to Annie Beasant to Gandhi to Periyar to the Indian railways all have essays dedicated.
The book also lavishes more essays to the Malabar coast and brings out delightful nuggets about Kerala from time to time, it’s past obviously very close to the author’s heart.
Today, as the world today comes to reckon with its own diversity, differences and fascistic tendencies of monoculture, this is a wonderful book to read about India’s rich diversity. I always think of books, films, documentaries, music as a culture or society having conversations with itself. And The Courtesan, the Mahatma, and the Italian Brahmin: Tales from Indian History is a great example of that conversation.
I managed to read this on Kindle because of the lockdown, but the book has wonderful illustrations by Priya Kuriyan; so I will be buying the print version soon.